Reverend America – Kris Saknussemm writes The great American Novel.

“Hard to get a new perspective in a small room. The trick is making the room bigger.”

Reverend America

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

John Steinbeck

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Kris Saknussem sets out (unapologetically) to write the great american novel in Reverend America, and succeeds with a zest and attention to detail that makes him worthy of the claim. This is the third of this authors books that I have read, and the latest of his works to be published (Dark Coast Press). All up he has four novels (I have yet to read Zanesville) and a book of short stories.

In each of the works that I have read, Saknussem employes a realist style – even when (as in his previous works) the plot imposes the fantastic, Saknussem moves effortlessly into magic realism (not so in Reverend America),  staying with his stylised voice,  keeping his work grounded in character and experience.  In reverend America he employs a little metafiction (very light handed here), forcing us to engage with the words on the page as well as immerse in the evolving narrative. Newspaper headlines look like newsprint, and the writer is freer with a blurring of the edges of grammar and sentence structure, allowing for the uninterrupted voice of the main character, who is protagonist and the Gothic horrors of the deep South, to emerge with the recounted.  This places the writer as this generations  cross between Faulkner and Steinbeck with not a small pinch of Harper Lee. It is the voice that sets this writer apart. His talent for a deep engaging in the detail that allows the rich torrid tones of the south to tell its sorry tale.

I’ve watched this writer develop this style, and i will say he bubbles it to an almost state of perfection in this novel, only a touch of preachiness (just as with Steinbeck) possibly standing in the way.

Casper’s adoptive parents were figures straight out of the great depression, proud to say they survived on “Shit, grit nd mother wit.” They were both in their late fifties when they first took charge of him, and how they finagled that he was never sure.  Perhaps it was because it was another era and fewer questions were asked – and attitudes are different in the South.  He was just a runt of the litter ward of the church, and they were both exceptionally believable and indeed professional liars.

Although he came to love them, he also came to hate them.  They were more like animal trainers than family… His lost dog found father had used so many aliases over the years, Casper was never sure what his real name was had been.  Calhoun, Brixton, Sheridan – Benny, Lucas, Amos – the man and his masks blurred – and with those evolutions, his wife’s name underwent those same parallel changes. 

This is the story of a man haunted by a lonely room. M A T H I A S  T R U E is “Reverend America”, an albino sheister of a preacher, complying and eventually plotting with his parents to relieve the faithful of that which they will trade to be sure of a passage way into heaven. However, we meet a soulful Mathias, nic named Casper (for his albino appearance – white like an angel – the (not)black every man) after a nasty stint in jail, long after his reverend America days. In a road trip to nowhere, we wander through the American South with Casper as his past, literally, catches up with him. Saknussemm employ’s a brilliant narrative structure by giving us chapter for chapter past/present/ past bringing the past gradually into the present (its own future) till a collision of storylines forces Casper to accept his own reality and come to terms with a previously abused true calling. In the present, Casper reminisces and in the past he fantasies about his future. Sometimes the two overlap as we pice this fascinating character and the calling cards of his psyche into the individuals who have shaped him on his way.

Social mistakes are often measured against education levels in Westernized nations, but this presupposes a lack of learning from the school of life, and a refusal to acknowledge the disproportionate hardship of the disenfranchised. This is a concept Saknussemm wants to turn upon its head and then turn around again. These are the erudite poor making excellent financial choices, accepting the consequences of bad financial and life choices and coming to terms with the inevitability of the forces arrayed against them as they are compelled to travel up and down Jacobs Ladder.  This is also the story of obstacles so large they can’t be leaped and wounds so deep they are the un-traversable moat around the human heart. These are the living, told in the voice of one who is alive, about lives more difficult than we can imagine.

Saknussemm’s influences are clear here, none of which has been more potently bled than the bible itself. I happen to be a friend of Kris Saknussemm (don’t assume that automatically means I would review his books – I only review what I like) and I know his father was a preacher. This writer wants to offer us a new perspective on the ‘simple faithful’ of the deep south, with their passion for bizarre tabloid headlines (beautifully dealt with in the novel – you’ll never look at tabloid headlines in the same way again) and their hope in preacher who is more like pice of rap star bling than a carrier of a spiritual truth. Just as the purchase of a lottery ticket is the right to dream for another week, the purchase of faith is a right to dare there is a reward for lives this hard:

Now, you may be of the mind that faith healing is just an out and out con–but as Poppy would say, “that’s because you’re looking at the game from the wrong end of the table. Healing isn’t he con–faith is the con–and people fool themselves in that. We’re not fooling people.  We’re freeing them to belive fully in what they already do–or what they say they belive in.  Healing? Who doesn’t want to be healed? There’s always something wrong. Complaining is what people love to do the most. Gratitude is the shortest – lived sentiment there’ll ever be.”

 Saknussemm them proceeds to take classic bible stories / metaphors and turn them on their head. Solomon’s wisdom as displayed in the offer to cleave the child before the two mothers, is reversed when a woman who has had two babies, is encouraged to kill the ‘fake’ one.  A man carrying bricks to his place of death by drowning in a near-by lake is carrying  stones to his own mercy killing on behalf of guilt over a life of failure.  He is encouraged to pause and reflect, over the best dessert in the district. Story-teller after story-teller come before the Christed Casper, their stories of deep south American gothic collecting in the preachers mind like a PHD thesis from the school of hard knocks:

Caspers sympathies lay with the Sharees. Whether he’d fond them in Topeka or Texarkana… they always seemed a little too real for their own good.  Dignified in their wretchedness. Always searching for that Emerald City somewhere where they could pay their rent, pass the application test, get custody–land that job. Hoping for Hope. For a Rinder to come.

And who are the Rinders?  Why they’re the only real hope any of these lost souls have.  They are the untainted among us, The Good Samaritans, those who regardless of who they’d been in their lives, at this moment, at your lowest, are there for you with no expectation of reciprocity except for the gift giving always is to the giver. Rinders are Reverend America’s angels, the souls who for a brief moment have managed to find their way, and blessed with fresh clarity of purpose the first thing they do is reach out their helping hand. For every hurt, wound, person who sits only with their  internal evil, a Rinder appears in Reverend America, reminding Americans – us – that the solutions to life’s complexities lay within us and our fellow-man. It is this lesson that Casper will learn and will impart as he makes his way to his own authenticity.

 

He’d always worked when he could and prided himself on not expecting charity–being generous with whatever he had.  He’d lost whatever faith he’d had in God a long time ago, and yet he’d kept looking for it. Believing he’d find it. Believing a Rinder would come to lead hm home. 

Still, the one time in his life that he was sure he’d done some real good in the world was as reverend America–when he was a sham and a con artist. That was the irony he’d never been able to outrun. So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it.  Faith is always a con, he realised.  He saw again the old scenes of Poppy and Rose, wayfarers with their bus of dreams and schemes pulled over in country very much like this. 

he saw himself in the American flag suit leading a wide-eyed choir of mill workers and chicken pluckers in “There’s a River.” 

Reverend America is filled with the wit and wisdom only the very poor – black and white – of the most destitute parts of America know. At times it is laugh-out-loud funny, and at others, tear-drip sad. I read the novel in one sitting.  I simply couldn’t put it down once I’d started. What is not mentioned in this review is a good old-fashioned fast paced story that drives the reader forward in the skilled hands of this author who never loses control of the work, slowing us down, speeding us up according to his own overarching plan to journey us to a certain awareness. It is filled with new life, new death and sometimes a desperate combination of the two.

It is full of reality. It is full of life.

The pale minister with the dark past heard his own voice rise above the rest–the voice trained in tents and hardwood churches overlooking ravines of rust eaten iron stoves. he heard it come forward like a spirit when the stone of the past is rolled away.  A spirit consecrated to wander, and in wondering be reborn. Could he be moved? Could he be moved to remain–to put down roots? Or was he forever a mustard seed on the wind, a Rinder haunting the crossroads just this side of Burma Shave and Damascus? There was no more sermon left to say– only the one kind of prayer he’d never finally lost faith in.

He sang as only he could.

Buy Reverend America here.

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